When the generals have lost heart and crept away from the battlefield it is hard for the ground troops to keep up their spirits. Although the Cheltenham Festival buzz is already in the air, BetBright Chase Day at Kempton Park last Saturday definitely had something deflated about it. Everybody was still doing their jobs but the atmosphere wasn’t one of celebration or expectation. The cover of the racecard for which punters had to fork out £3 carried, as it long has done, the words ‘Kempton Park — a Jockey Club racecourse’, but that doesn’t have the same ring about it now we know that the Jockey Club intends, as soon as it can secure a property developer’s signature on the cheque, to turn Kempton into a huge housing estate.
Although the BetBright-sponsored event was full of interesting races contested by the cream of Britain’s racing yards, the racecard compilers had taken their motto from the dying news editor who insisted his tombstone should bear only the words. ‘John Smith, 1930 to 2000. All the facts you need to know.’ The basic information on runners and riders was there. So was a list of course officials, health-and-safety regulations and 11 pages of betting advertisements. But there was not a single jockey or trainer profile, not a single feature designed to widen racegoers’ knowledge or remind them of the racecourse’s great days. Is the Jockey Club determined to make us forget all about Kempton as soon as possible?
The authorities had not even bothered to include in the racecard the basic details of the runners and riders at other racecourses that day, a day when the popular Eider Chase was being run at Newcastle and the Winter Derby at Lingfield. Others do it, so why can’t Kempton? Those who attend race meetings do not follow the sport at one racetrack exclusively and with Kempton’s TV screens beaming out racing at other tracks, and on-course Tote and betting shops taking bets on races everywhere, every racecard should list the runners, riders, timings and jockeys’ colours of important races elsewhere. Racing’s funding, with which the Jockey Club is supposed to be concerned, depends on the levy on bookmakers’ profits, and racing’s authorities should be doing everything they can to keep up turnover.
My basic rule of thumb at Kempton meetings in the run-up to Cheltenham is to look at the horses sent by Nicky Henderson, who times Cheltenham preparations so perfectly, and back most of them, unless the champion trainer Paul Nicholls appears to have a better prospect. I agreed, too, with my regular racing companion that J.P. McManus’s jockey Barry Geraghty’s mounts looked worthy of support in combination bets. It is, though, nearly always a mistake to stick to formulae. There are other good Cheltenham trainers too: Alan King has had 15 Festival successes and it was he, not the big two, who came away with a new gleam in his eye. King’s River Frost, ridden by Barry Geraghty, won the opening handicap hurdle with another King runner in third. His fast-improving Master Blueyes then romped away with the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle with another King runner again in third. Said the delighted trainer: ‘I’ve been tearing my hair out that I didn’t have a horse for the Triumph [the key Festival race for juveniles] and now I have.’ But the race was not a happy one for Henderson who trains J.P. McManus’s impressive previous course winner Charli Parcs. The gelding, who cost a hefty €250,000 after winning in France, crashed out at the second-last, giving poor Barry Geraghty broken ribs and a punctured lung in the process. The next day’s Racing Post had prepared a magazine special on Geraghty’s Festival prospects. Now he won’t be riding at Cheltenham.
In the big race, Nicky’s Triolo D’Alene pulled up injured after the second and has now been retired, while stable rider Nico de Boinville was limping after falling in the lead on Cocktails At Dawn. He had earlier partnered Henderson’s River Wylde to win the Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle, but taking over from Geraghty on Henderson’s odds-on favourite Champ in the bumper the pair could only finish second, the same place occupied by Jerry McGrath on Henderson’s Full Shift in the Handicap Chase. Some days are just like that and while the game and consistent Frodon advertised his Festival prospects by winning the Pendil Novices’ Chase for Paul Nicholls, Paul’s favourite, Irish Saint, also disappointed in the big race, the BetBright Chase. That was won by Pilgrims Bay, a quirky character who enjoys dropping his shoulder and depositing stable lads on the gallops and who has to be held up to the last second to deliver his effort. ‘He can stop in a second,’ admitted trainer Neil Mulholland. Cool young jockey James Best, who has been building a reputation on the West Country tracks, delivered him perfectly for his biggest win yet. ‘I was more scared of a bollocking for coming too early than of leaving it too late,’ he grinned. He is worth watching.